State governments are hiring but fewer people are applying.
From 2013 through 2017, job postings in 27 states increased 11 percent, while the number of applicants plummeted 24 percent, according to a new report from the National Association of State Chief Administrators, done in partnership with Accenture and NEOGOV, a public sector job board.
It's a surprising finding since government jobs have often been seen as clear pathways to the middle class, offering long-time positions with good benefits. But such jobs may have lost some of their luster.
"People just aren’t as attracted to that industry as they were five years ago,'' says Shane Evangelist, NEOGOV's chief executive officer. "The top two factors that drive job seekers to the public sector (are) ... job security and benefits, and we’ve had some pretty big changes happen.''
The Great Recession and its aftermath put a dent in the idea that a state government position meant a job for life, Evangelist says. From Aug. 2008 to December 2013, state work forces decreased 6.5 percent, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. Most of that drop likely had to do with positions not being replaced as employees retired, resigned or transferred, but layoffs also contributed.
And in a March, 2016 report, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said that three quarters of state and local government employees took part in pension plans, but 57 percent of them were no longer open to new workers.
Age is nothing but a number in job market: More older women are returning to work, rebuilding savings and a professional identity
A state government paycheck coupled with a pension "over the long term probably made sense,'' Evangelist says, though the salary might have been lower than what a worker could earn in the private sector. "But now that we've frozen these resources, there's not as much economic value as there once was," he says.
Even in states that offer strong benefits, a national unemployment rate of 3.8 percent can make the competition for workers more fierce.
Reid Walsh, deputy secretary for human resources and management for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania says that the tight job market has affected the state's ability to fill some jobs.
“I think we're like any other state and employer that's finding the job market more competitive,'' says Walsh, noting that there are 72,000 state government positions and an average vacancy rate of roughly 11 percent. "But what we’re finding in Pennsylvania is people are out there if we go to where they are.''
While the state's Department of Corrections has no shortage of applicants for officer positions, other government slots like those for engineers, doctors and nurses, have been harder to fill. Those empty positions can mean "you tend to ask people to do more with less,'' she says. "If there's a lag time in hiring, that would impact the citizens.''
But in the last year and a half, Pennsylvania has taken steps to better present and promote job vacancies, revising its website, and stripping jargon from job descriptions and titles. Those changes are particularly important in order to connect with young workers.
"What we are seeing is millennials are very interested in working in a job that has purpose and mission, and that's where we're trying to go in terms of our branding,'' she says.
For instance, a position technically known as 'administrative officer five' is now specifically listed as green government council director.
"When you call it exactly what it is .. it's much more likely you will get a richer pool of applicants who understand the job and are excited to apply,'' Walsh says. "We're seeing a lot more people apply for jobs we traditionally had a hard time recruiting for.''
Daniel Kim, director of the California Department of General Services says that while his agency is not necessarily seeing a drop off in applications, positions in construction management, IT, and engineering, can be hard to fill.
That’s likely in part because potential applicants are more interested in the higher salaries they can get in the private sector, or believe government work isn’t as interesting, Kim says.
"That’s why it’s important to sell this sense of mission and work-life balance,'' Kim says. "I’m happy with the rate of hires lately," he says, adding that the state is changing the way it hires.
In the last couple of years, his department has streamlined its hiring process from 89 steps to 14, and cut the time from initial interest to job offer from six months to roughly two, Kim says. Instead of just going to job fairs, the department identifies colleges to visit, influencers who can help spread the word, and uses personal LinkedIn accounts to post job announcements.
“So a combination of making job descriptions more appealing, going to social media and other venues to hire, and streamlining hiring process,'' are garnering results, Kim says.
Chelsea Hainline, 26, started working in California's Department of General Services in December, less than a month after she applied. It was a far different experience than the one she had previously, finding positions on the state's job site, filling out applications and not hearing back.
“I thought it was very abnormal that there was a state position on LinkedIn,’’ said Hainline, who previously worked in hiring for a private investigation company.
Her parents have had long careers working for the state’s corrections department, and her father was able to retire last year at the age of 52. The prospect of such stability, and a good pension appealed to Hainline. But the state has to use LinkedIn and other more contemporary methods to attract other young people.
“They aren’t really looking for pensions,’’ she says of her peers. “We do have to be competitive with the private sector and the tools that they’re using.’’
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: State governments say 'Help Wanted.' But people aren't applying like they used to